“I’ve always been into political music that pushes for social change,” said singer-songwriter Seth Adam before his final song on Friday night. “But for seven or eight years I was told to not get involved. Now I write about what I see. I look at song as a means to unify and create change.”
Adam spoke for the general sentiment of a show called The State of the Union, organized by musician Nancy Tatspaugh and musician and Best Video program director Hank Hoffman as a follow-up to last year’s Should We Talk About the Government show. Though this year’s theme and layout was slightly different.
“Last year everyone was in shock, and it was great to get together and vent,” said Tatspaugh before the show. “I took away a great sense of community, and I was blown away by the choices of cover songs and topics of people’s original songs. This year I said, ‘what if we pare it down and give people more of a platform?’”
She and Hoffman chose five performers and told them to do what they wanted with 20 minutes — whether it was reading an essay, playing a cover song, or performing an original — and to choose whatever political topic or vibe they wanted to present. They also chose three new charities to donate the proceeds toward, deciding upon those that “would represent both the local area and the people endangered by this administration.” Those charities were Music Haven, which provides free music education and mentoring to young people; CT CORE, which focuses on racial justice through community organizing and involvement; and the Anchor Health Initiative which specializes in primary and specialized medical care for the LGBT community.
The first act of the evening was That Virginia from Bridgeport (a.k.a. Virginia Semighini) who immediately launched into an a cappella song that included the line “taking matters into our hands and plant a seed of healing into the ground we’ve burned.” She then played three more songs on her guitar, including one called “Our Time,” which she explained was written based on her personal experiences after the 2016 election.
“I am an immigrant. I am queer. I am all of the things this government said was wrong,” she said. “I wrote this song as a way to find my voice to speak out as a person, as all the things I am.” She also offered a poem she wrote called “Alien Earth” that implored the audience to “take a deep breath” numerous times, telling them to look at the sun, the moon, and human beings; they were “just as scared” and “just a powerful as you.” It brought tears to this reporter’s eyes, and the small but impassioned audience responded to this set as lovingly as Semeghini presented it.
Next up was New Haven singer-songwriter Paul Bryant Hudson, who sat at the piano to the right of the stage and delivered three songs and stories of his own, also emphasizing the power of music to inform himself and others, and create a place for change.
“All of these songs are centered on identity and some things that I experienced as a person of color navigating the same world my great-grandmother navigated all those years ago,” he said after talking about her, a pianist born in 1914. “Like my great-grandmother I was born into a system that’s hinged specifically on systemic racism and white supremacy, and like my great-grandmother, I identify as an artist, and I experience a lot of the same dynamics and energies that she experienced in the early 1900s. Like my great-grandmother I wrote about these things within the context of oppressive systems and within the context of this music not symbolizing a political affiliation or a political position, but it being representative of a universal truth and a personal truth in addition to that.” He then launched into the soulful and heart-swelling “Ode to the People” as the room stayed silent and took in every last brilliant note.
He also presented a song called “John” based on the story of John Henry, well-known but also told and retold “with its original structure compromised,” Hudson said.
The one Hudson told was the version he’d been told by his grandfather, about John Henry being a man in West Virginia who demanded unity at a time right after emancipation, when there was a convergence of poor whites and free slaves. Hudson noted that today we find ourselves “in a similar place of convergence.”
His final song he said was untitled “and is gonna stay that way.” He explained it was about his own struggle with identity as he tried to put “words and names to new emotions and new levels to old emotions” as he left the comforts of the world he grew up in and learned how to retain who he was in the world he entered as an adult. His set received an enthusiastic response, the audience mesmerized by Bryant’s words and music.
Bret Logan of the band Jellyshirts came up next and launched right into a Jellyshirts song, one of four songs he performed — including an original he wrote specifically for this event. He noted that he and his wife run an event called Compassionfest at Whitneyville Cultural Commons on Whitney Avenue; the idea behind it was to find “that center, that common ground” with like-minded people. He had a handwritten list of “Rules for How to Find the Center” that he read throughout the set. “Understand that peace is the natural state because it requires no energy, and war, hatred and fear use vast amounts of energy,” read one point. “Peace, like love, outlasts everything because it is the lowest energy level.”
“Always be for something you want rather than against something you don’t want,” read another rule. “You get what you focus on. There is no other rule.”
“Trust that no one is actually right, not even you,” was greeted with a few laughs. When he offered “take nothing personally because on the deepest sense nothing is,” he noted that was the hardest one for him and others around the room nodded along.
Next up was the band Zoo Front, which included Tatspaugh on vocals and guitar, Ed Ekendu on vocals and guitar, Judy Prill on bass, and Lisa Tonner on drums. Their first song was one Ekendu said he wrote “in reaction to a shocking inauguration that really blew me away, and I thought about it and I realized that, ‘wow, there are great implications and a lot of people don’t really understand that sometimes you can have a slippery slope.’ That’s kind of what this song is about. The odd thing is that I wrote it in 1981 when Reagan was elected, and it’s come to fruition a bit.”
“Being angry, frustrated, and pissed off, it’s easier to write lyrics as to why you’re angry, frustrated, and pissed off,” said Tatspaugh before the next number, a new one inspired by a trip to Canada, where things “looked the same but were fundamentally different.”
After a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Sheep,” Zoo Front concluded with a song they said everyone could sing along to if they wanted.
“You’ll catch on quick,” Ekendu said. The song turned out to be a hard rocking one called “National Disgrace.” “We’re not gonna play along with your distractions,” Zoo Front sang. “We’re not gonna let it all go down.” Audience members were heard to be singing along, and one even shouted “instant classic” when it was over.
The final act of the night was the aforementioned Seth Adam, who chose his four songs as well as his words and stories carefully but pointedly. Tunes like “Whose America,” “Politician,” “How Do We Wonder Now,” and the recently released “Anytown” were tied together with tales of how and why this artist has made every effort he can to create change.
“I don’t know what to say anymore,” he said. “This is about living your life. I think strength comes from within. We can deal with all of this through love. We need to love each other.”
Tatspaugh agreed. She ended the show, which raised $116 for its charities, by reminding everyone: “Remember, we always have music. We always have each other.”